It was never about the menu. The highest praise restaurant critic Mimi Sheraton could muster was that “the food wasn’t too expensive,” that it was “straightforward.” But when it opened in 1965, Joe Allen’s quickly became a comfortable hangout for working actors, including this chorus-and-understudy performer.
In its heyday, the 1980s, theater folk especially loved the posters of famous Broadway failures on the walls, including the notorious “Moose Murders.” Actress Joanna Gleason cringed when Allen was nailing up her show’s poster “within minutes of our thunderous flop, ‘Nick and Nora’ closing.” He told her to “wait a bit, you’re gonna want to sit under it.” He was right.
My show was the Robert Preston starrer “Ben Franklin In Paris,” where I sang in the chorus and, as dancer, understudied the waltz that opened the second act. I would come on stage during intermission, dressed in the ball gown, and look forward to talking briefly with Preston, who was always early, too.
For a long time, I wondered why “Ben Franklin” hadn’t made the cut to be included in Allen’s hall of disasters. But then, we’d run for 215 performances. While we hadn’t been a hit, we weren’t really a failure. As Allen had said, any show that gives that much work to actors isn’t a flop. So it was a relief that our show wasn’t on the walls, but also — somehow — a disappointment.
Reserved. Laconic. Taciturn. In the obituaries, there were few warm descriptions of Allen, who died last week at 87. But the memories recorded credited the man’s attention to detail. They also noted his vision: opening his named watering hole when 46th Street west of Eighth Avenue, at the edge of the theater district, was a chancy choice.
In 1983, Allen opened Orso next door, a slightly more upscale version of Joe Allen’s, but with the same out-of-work-actor-wait-staff. Up a small staircase, the intimate Bar Centrale opened in 2005. Insiders moved on from Allen’s to Orso and, often, upstairs.
Over time, Allen expanded to offshoots as far away as Paris and London, but as he aged, he retrenched. At 87, he died at an assisted living facility in Hampton, N.H., not far from the children he had abandoned as toddlers but had reconnected with as adults. In fact, he brought his son and daughter into his businesses.
Allen was famously private. He’d sit by himself near the bar with a glass of red wine in front of him. A thin man who looked like he didn’t want to be there, yet he always seemed to be.
So what now for Joe Allen’s? Walking through what has become Restaurant Row, the devastation wrought by the pandemic is all encompassing. While a banner proclaims that the street is open, there are only a couple of covered sidewalk eateries visible. Many of the spots are boarded up with for rent signs in their windows. Orso and Joe Allen are closed tight.
There aren’t enough locals to keep the once bustling street bouncing, and until the theaters reopen and the tourists come back, Restaurant Row and every eatery on it is problematic. Those restaurants are visible victims of COVID-19.
The Broadway League trade group says it’ll probably be six to nine months before Broadway reopens. The theater owners seem confident: so many of their houses are enveloped by construction bridges. Joe Allen is gone, but — with its walls of posters — Joe Allen’s plans to come back.